I naturally sucked.
Instruments. Athletics. Standardized tests.
A common thought when I was younger: “Oh, I’ll never be good at that. What’s the point in trying?”
Okay, maybe I wasn’t completely helpless. But I believed I couldn’t do anything to improve my situation (Carol Dweck calls this a fixed mindset. The opposite of this is, well, a growth mindset, where you believe you can improve your situation.)
Activity after activity. Start, quit, start, quit.
I always quit before I could make any progress. I mean, could you blame me? It’s not fun doing something you think you suck at and that (you believe) you will always suck at.
But then, there was one activity that changed everything.
I came across lifting weights.
Yeah, I wasn’t strong at first (who is… maybe The Rock?). Yeah, I was weak and frail. But it didn’t matter.
Because I found the Sweet Spot.
Introducing: The Sweet Spot
We value what is difficult to achieve.
But here’s the tricky part:
It can’t be too hard.
Especially when we’re starting out.
Imagine if when playing basketball, every time you shot you missed. Every single time? You’d stop playing. (On the other side, if you scored every time, you’d hate it as well.)
If we decide an activity is too difficult, we quit. Like all the instruments I tried from the ages of 11 to 15. Because I could not imagine a world in which I was good at the saxophone, I stopped doing it. Even though we could become great if we didn’t stop, still… we quit.
So what is the Sweet Spot?
The Sweet Spot is the place the activity isn’t too easy or difficult. But most importantly, we must know we are improving, and we must enjoy the feeling.
After my first few weeks of weightlifting, I got stronger. My form improved. I was lifting heavier weights.
Here’s where the breakthrough happened.
I realized, “Oh, if I keep this up for 10+ years, I’m going to be really good. And besides, this is really good for my body and mind. So I’m going to keep doing it.”
The improvement was objective. It wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t difficult.
It hit the Sweet Spot.
The Sweet Spot is similar to flow. When we’re in flow, we:
- Get more enjoyment out of the activity
- Learn faster
- Are more productive
- Feel more creative
The Sweet Spot is that perfect area where we don’t feel as if we suck. And we don’t feel as if we’re too good.
Anyone can lift weights because the activity has “beginner, intermediate, advanced” built-in.
Someone who is starting out can use their body weight. An intermediate can progress to dumbbells and barbells. And an expert can add even more weight to their movements.
Meaning: if you “suck” at the beginning (like I did), you can still improve in some way. Which makes the activity fun, rewarding, and challenging.
The Mastery Curve: How To Find The Sweet Spot Throughout The Journey
“A black belt is a white belt who never quit.”
When you begin an activity, you objectively suck. But fear not, the longer you pursue it – while trying to improve – the better you will get.
What’s more important than whether you suck or not?
Finding the Sweet Spot.
In other words, your own perspective matters.
Is the activity is fun? Do you think you’re improving? Are you getting recognition from the outside world?
If yes, you’ve found the Sweet Spot.
Note: The timeline I’ve outlined below doesn’t hold true for every activity. But it’s a pretty good gauge for random, difficult activities.
The “Newbie Gains!” Stage: Your First ~6-12 Months
When you are a beginner, you can make rapid advancements over short periods of time.
In weightlifting, “newbie gains” are when you can add the most amount of muscle in the shortest amount of time. In your first year of lifting properly, you can gain as much as 20 pounds of muscle. For someone who has been lifting for 10+ years, this is nearly impossible to do.
It’s almost as if life has programmed this in, giving you a reason to stay with the activity.
How to find the Sweet Spot: Track your progress by an internal metric. Start a streak. Make it something you can fully control. If you compare yourself to someone who has been practicing the craft for much longer, you probably will get upset and miss the Sweet Spot.
The “Oh, I’m Actually Kinda Good At This” Stage, Part I: Years ~1-3
In this stage, you look back on your previous self.
It is slightly embarrassing.
You’ve come a long way, in what seems like a short amount of time.
You’re also noticing it’s becoming harder and harder to make improvements. Your rate of growth decreases. You’re still learning, but you’ve already mastered the basics.
In order to make the same improvement jump as you did in the first year, you need to spend more time on the activity.
So that’s what you need to do to find the Sweet Spot.
How to find the Sweet Spot: Make the activity more difficult. Add resistance.
The “There’s So Much More To Learn Stage”, Part II: Years 3-10
At this point, you’re at an in-between stage. Most people do not pursue activities for 3+ years, so you’re better than most.
You can teach what you know to someone who is a complete beginner.
But someone who has been practicing for 10+ or even 20+ years can still teach you a lot.
Instead of making progress by day, week, or month, you’re now measuring improvements in years.
How to find the Sweet Spot: Instruct a beginner.
The “This Is Fun Stage”: Years 10+
If you have been practicing an activity for 10+ years, there’s an incredibly high chance you attain mastery in it.
You can have fun with your skills. But more likely? You will want to explore some other areas as a beginner again.
How to find the Sweet Spot: Have fun with your skills. Become a beginner again.
It turns out sucking isn’t so bad after all.